Thanks to the rapid development of communication and information technologies, we can freely exchange or share information and opinions with many other people around the world, but then there are also dark possibilities in this technological advance. Through its close look into the cautious steps leading to an expose which shook the whole global world in last year, Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour” soberly presents a fearful fact we should worry about more. It is really unnerving to see how easily our life can be monitored by government agencies, and it is all the more disturbing to think that we are possibly in the middle of the ongoing process to a brave new world where personal privacy is no longer possible. You may have nothing to hide at all, but, seriously, can you possibly imagine freedom with no privacy?
At the beginning, the director Laura Poitras, who previously directed an Oscar-nominated documentary “My Country, My Country” (2006), tells us how she got connected with Edward Snowden in early 2013 when she was planning a documentary about the War on Terror. As a Booz Allen analyst loaned to the National Security Agency (NSA), Snowden had a government secret which he thought should be known to the public, and he also warned her that she had to be far more careful than before. While making “My Country, My Country” and the following documentary film “The Oath” (2010), Poitra got herself included in the Department of Homeland Security’s watch list just because of these two documentaries on the ramifications of the aggressive foreign policies of the US government after 9/11, and she understood too well Snowden’s carefulness in their secret communication.
While showing her several occasions of clandestine correspondence with Snowden, Poitra gives us the basic background information on how far the US government has gone into dark areas in the name of national security during recent years. More concerned about domestic security since 9/11, the US government has let the National Security Agency (NSA) expand its surveillance network further along with other intelligence agencies including the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHG) in UK, and that trend has been continued as reflected by one short scene which shows one of its new major facilities being built on the field. There are a number of global mass surveillance programs including PRISM to filter and analyze the vast amount of information collected from not only America but also other foreign countries, and, as many of you already know, they have monitored internet/telephone communications through the cooperation of several prominent Internet and telecommunication companies such as Google Inc. and Verizon Communications.
William Binney, another well-known whistleblower from NSA, has openly expressed his concern over how this nearly uninhibited surveillance system can be a serious threat to the civil rights as well as the US constitutions, and we see him giving a sincere talk on that disconcerting topic to others. At a meeting of Occupy Wall Street protestors, one expert is invited to tell them how easily they can be profiled when they are targeted by government agencies. Only with your credit/traffic card and mobile phone records, it is already more than enough to know many things about you, and they also can get every detail of your online activities – from your private e-mail communications to trivial keywords you type into web search engines.
Several months after their first contact, Poitras and Snowden eventually had their secret rendezvous with two Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, and Poitra’s camera looks closely into the series of their secret meetings at Snowden’s room. As Snowden shows the scale of global mass surveillance by NSA to Greenwald and MacAskill through many classified government files he acquired, it becomes pretty clear to everyone in the room that they must be really careful and watchful about every step they are going to take, and the mood surrounding them begins to resemble John Le Carre’s espionage novels as the time goes by.
There is always that nagging uncertainty on how NSA and the US government will react to their expose (“Assume your adversary is capable of one trillion guesses per second.”), and it seems NSA begins to smell something suspicious about Snowden, who is currently on a ‘sick leave’. When the talk in his hotel room is suddenly interrupted by a minor disturbance within the hotel, it turns out to be nothing to their relief, but then it keeps throwing an uncomfortable discord into that moment as they continue their talk as before.
Regardless of whatever you think of Snowden, this young man is presented as a smart, decent ordinary guy in front of Poitras’ camera. Believing in what he is going to do, he seems to be ready for the personal cost of leaking classified government files to the outside, but he also looks nervous at times as spending more time with Poitras and others in his hotel room. Although he and others are very cautious about planning how they should present their news in public while damaging him and others as little as possible, that does not change the fact that he will be instantly labeled as a criminal and traitor by the US government, and he certainly looks agitated as preparing his checkout after passing the point of no return on June 9th, 2013
As Snowden managed to find a temporary shelter in Russia in the end (he is still staying there, by the way), Poitras and Greenwald got a fair of troubles as expected because of their involvement with Snowden. Greenwald’s partner David Miranda was unfairly detained for hours at the Heathrow airport, and Poitras had to move to Germany for completing her documentary under a more protected environment coupled with security precautions. When her completed documentary was selected to be shown at the New York Film Festival in last year, she and the festival staff members were very discreet about its screening for apparent reasons until it was included in the festival’s screening schedule in the last minute.
While it is maddening to see how the US government has tried to smear Snowden by any means necessary after what may be the biggest leak scandal in its history since Daniel Ellsberg, it is also frightening to observe that not many things have been done since that, and that is why “Citizenfour” feels more chilling as I reflect more on its story and message. I did some search on the Internet for preparing this review, and now I am wondering whether someone is watching me right now as I am typing the last paragraph of my review. Maybe I am a bit paranoid, but you will probably never laugh about that after watching this gripping documentary which is also one of the scariest films of 2014.